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Rev. Dr. Susan Brooks Thistlethwaite Headshot

Religious Freedom Wars: Why the UCC's Lawsuit Against NC Gay Marriage Ban Matters for Every American

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In recent years, the religious and political right in this country has weaponized the Constitution. From bans on gay marriage to the right to own an assault rifle without a background check, the First and Second Amendments, in particular, have been used as a battering ram against equality, fairness and public safety.

You cannot make peace if you do not even know you are in a war, and people of faith and conscience in this country need to realize that the very rights that the Constitution protects are under siege by those who abuse and misuse constitutional guarantees.

This why what the United Church of Christ, my own denomination, has just done matters so much at so many levels. The UCC has taken a bold step in engaging this struggle, right at the heart of the abuse of religious freedom. This church just filed a landmark lawsuit against North Carolina's ban on gay marriage, arguing that the state's marriage laws violate the First Amendment rights of clergy and the principle of "free exercise of religion."

North Carolina has become "ground zero" for many struggles for equality and fairness in our country. In 2012, Republicans gained control of the state legislature and the governorship, and went on binge of passing voter suppression laws, raising taxes on the bottom 80%, slashing education spending, enacting radical gun legislation, declining the Medicaid expansion and passing a draconian abortion bill tacked on to a motorcycle safety law.

As part of this frenzy of rights suppression, North Carolina saw fit to pass Amendment One in 2012, and thus it became a crime in the State of North Carolina for clergy to officiate a marriage ceremony without determining whether the couple involved has a valid marriage license.

Seriously, North Carolina, you made it a crime for us, in the United Church of Christ, to follow our church doctrine?

Yes, they did. In North Carolina, United Church of Christ ministers, interested in conducting a religious marriage ceremony for same-gender couples, could face up to 120 days of jail and/or probation and community service if found guilty, since North Carolina marriage laws define and regulate marriage as being between only a man and a woman.

As lead plaintiff in this lawsuit against the State, the United Church of Christ asserts that these laws are unconstitutional and violate clergy's First Amendment rights. Other plaintiffs include two Unitarian Universalist clergy, one Lutheran pastor, one Baptist minister, and one rabbi, as well as eight couples they seek to marry.

North Carolina is passing frankly immoral laws, and that is why this all out assault on economic, political and human rights in North Carolina has given rise to the powerful Moral Monday protests in the capital and around the state.

Progressive people of faith and people of conscience across a wide spectrum are taking back the term "moral" from the extreme right, and it is important to see the UCC lawsuit as part of this larger moral struggle.

The United Church of Christ lawsuit on behalf of religious freedom for our clergy and our church members is so crucial for all Americans to take back our democratic freedoms.

The lawsuit is a legal action, but it is also a strong faith action that models a theology of "engaging the powers," that is, taking on the spiritual significance of political and societal institutions (the biblical "principalities and powers") and their role in systemic injustice, as the great theologian Walter Wink so often pointed out.

What has happened in North Carolina since 2012, from a faith perspective, is biblically and theologically wrong. In their frenzy of economic and civil rights cutting, these legislators and their supporters have 'fallen into the temptation' of creating systemic injustice, rather than systemic justice. You can tell this is 'falling into temptation' because of how much overreaching they have done, at nearly every level of their society, and they deceptively call it freedom.

These draconian laws are not freedom, either biblical or legal.

North Carolina has "overreached" in making it illegal for the members of the United Church of Christ, and those of other faiths, to actually exercise their religious freedom to marry congregants who want to marry. And in "overreaching," in this way, these legislators tipped their hand, and made this lawsuit possible.

The United Church of Christ has taken a bold and absolutely necessary step to protect religious freedom for all Americans, and in so doing has taken a stand against the gutting of real freedom in this country.

I am very proud of my church and of the many people who worked to make this lawsuit possible.

We are in a profound spiritual as well as democratic struggle in this country, and it is time to choose sides.